What it means to be an American


By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

You don’t really know where you’re from until you’ve been somewhere else and come back. That’s because anything is only itself in relationship to some other thing. A day is only a day in relationship to the night. An apple stands for every fruit until you’ve tasted a mangosteen. America isn’t America until you’ve been to El Salvador.

Growing up above Sleeping Bear Bay I had some gut-level love of country that was mostly inarticulate and inchoate, the way you love a new puppy. My love of America had something to do with the beauty of Lake Michigan from the top of the dunes and the man who ran the barbershop in Empire, Mr. Lambkin, who did not know me except as a reckless nine-year-old out on horseback in a pelting April rain, who lifted me from my horse and put me into his old, blue, boiled-wool, World War II sweater to go back home to Glen Haven. The sweater weighed like iron and he must have thought, if nothing else, it would anchor me to the saddle. He said I could bring the sweater back sometime.

My childhood was lucky, with a freedom that in retrospect was unusual. I could go anywhere, anytime and I did. I played in the ice caves alone. I read in the barn loft, thrilling to the sound of the rain on the tin roof and the lightning and thunder outside. The hidden, fragrant arbutus under its rust-spotted, leathery leaves, when the snow was barely melted, was magical since I discovered it when I was alone. I can still call up the taste of wild strawberries in the spring and the days picking them in the hills above the bay after the ice had melted, the wind off the water smelling like fresh-cut cucumbers.

I sang, “My Country Tis of Thee,” in the old, redbrick Glen Arbor schoolhouse in Mrs. Andreson’s class, my heart swelling with emotion that came from I know not where. For years the song was conflated in my mind with “America, the Beautiful,” my imagination unconsciously substituting the pink arbutus and the blue-green waters of the lake for the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. As I got older, I thought about what I was singing. When the song got to “land of the pilgrim’s pride, land where our fathers died” I thought about all the Indians who had been killed by all those pilgrims—and vice versa—and what about the black people who didn’t seem even to be in these songs? At first unconsciously and then consciously, Woody Guthrie’s, “This Land is Your Land,” became my alternative national anthem.

I didn’t leave the United States until I went to El Salvador to teach at a private school. Outside of San Salvador there was a place called Devil’s Canyon, a cave in the mountains that one got to by ascending 500 steep, stone steps carved in the side of the mountain: on every step was the name of a dancer, teacher, writer, musician or doctor whose body had been dumped into the adjacent ravine, all killed during the Revolution, the violence of which was perpetuated by the ruling oligarchy, including some of the wealthy families who sent their children to my school. A fellow teacher, handsome, green-eyed Kevin from Louisiana, took his students on a field trip to the Museum of the Revolution. He was fired the next week, allegedly for using Pictionary as a teaching tool.

There’s more, but I don’t have time to tell you. Two tours in the Peace Corps followed, in Thailand and Romania. There were no public libraries to speak of in any of these countries. The private school library in El Salvador was only for the wealthy; the poor couldn’t read and since the school only had biographies of Pinochet and cookbooks why would they want to?

There were no libraries in Thailand and all unsanctioned biographies of the King of Thailand were banned; you could go to jail, or worse, if you were caught with one. When you are used to a country where you can read whatever you want and say whatever you think, and then you’re in a place where it’s too dangerous to do that, the mind shuts down.

You’d walk into a school in any of these places and ask, “Where’s the library?” and like as not, if they even had one, you’d be shown to a small, dirty room with moldy books in heaps on the floor and mostly the books were in some other language and were not interesting even in the other language which was of course incomprehensible to the children to whom they’d been sent. Romania had a few threadbare public libraries but the books in them were mostly leftovers from the Communists and propaganda left by Christian missionaries. People talk about the horrifying poverty in third world countries, but it’s not the poverty that’s scary, it’s the lack of easy talking and thinking.

The United States has all too often been complicit, unfortunately, with tyrants and bad governments; we seem to like freedom at home but to like dictators everywhere else, perhaps because they’re easier to control. The United States government had black-op sites in both Romania and Thailand, and in El Salvador took the side of the wealthy ruling families against the poor peasants. Money, corporate money, whether it’s a banana company or an oil company, is often behind our government’s policies. Alexis de Tocqueville admired our civil society, but even in 1830 when he visited and did the research for his 952-page tome, “Democracy in American,” he was worried about our greed and thought that if left uncurbed, it would be our undoing.

But my government is not the same thing as my country. A government, any government, but especially my own, is a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy with different policies at different times, depending on who gets in and who’s shoved out. It can depend even on whims. A government bureaucracy is a thing where the left hand often does not know what the right hand is doing. My government is not my country.

My country is the American people. It’s Sojourner Truth and Johnny Appleseed, Anne Hutchinson and Chief Joseph, Alexander Graham Bell and Steve Jobs, Leonard Peltier and William James, Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe, Richie Havens and Susan B. Anthony. It’s all of us. It’s people standing up for what’s right. It’s people inventing things. It’s people trying to make things better. It’s Big Annie Clemenc in Calumet, Mich., who during the miners’ strike of 1913 wrapped herself in the American flag and said to the soldiers sent by the government, “Shoot this, if you want to shoot something.”

My country is Kevin taking his students to the Museum of the Revolution, getting fired and crying, not because he got fired but because El Salvador was so messed up. The night before he goes back to New Orleans, I find him standing outside my door. He’s holding his pillow, and proffering it toward me. “I want you to have this,” he says, laughing. In case you need a pillow to cry on.” My country is some scrawny, old man standing by the side of the road outside Poughkeepsie, NY, with a sign that protests the war in Iraq and nobody even knows the old man is Pete Seeger.

When Seeger was before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, he said, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of those private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such a compulsion as this.” A lot of people named names and gave up their friends including some people you’d never expect like Frank Capra and Elia Kazan. They were afraid.

Of course Pete Seeger was afraid, too. During the Civil Rights movement when southern sheriffs turned dogs and fire hoses on children, Seeger was teaching an audience how to sing, “We Are Not Afraid,” and he said, “Of course you are afraid, but you sing it, ‘We are not afraid’.” Being afraid and doing the right thing anyway is called courage.

Seeger paid a big price for his courage; he and his music were black-listed for decades. Sixty years later, at Madison Square Garden in a celebration of Seeger’s 90th birthday hosted by all his fellow musicians, Bruce Springsteen said, “You outlived the bastards, Pete.”

America is the way people talk. It’s the young man fixing my roof who says he needs “a phoneless cord” and could I hand one up to him? It’s the old lady in Tom’s West Bay supermarket who offers me her cart, in place of the one I’m stubbornly trying to wrestle loose. I finally succeed and say, feeling a bit foolish because she’s been watching me the whole time, “It would have been smarter to take yours right away.” And she says kindly, in the same kind way she offered me her cart, “Peoples are always late getting smart.”

During the Second World War, out in the French countryside near Lyons, Gertrude Stein wasn’t homesick until the American soldiers came by and she couldn’t get enough of their American talk. And it wasn’t just their talk, it was their American-ness, their saying anything they wanted to with their humble, backwoods grammar and a sweet unselfconsciousness.

It’s the self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s Gary Snyder and Peter Blue Cloud in the High Sierras on a hot summer day painting the one-room schoolhouse to which both their children go, and Gary says, “Peter, why are we doing this?” And Blue Cloud answers, deadpan, never looking up from where he’s dipping his brush into the paint bucket, “Noblesse oblige.”

Americans volunteer. Americans are generous. Americans pay for the person behind them at Wendy’s. Sometimes they call this noblesse oblige. They think it’s hilarious.

Walt Whitman figured it out, and he didn’t even have to leave the country to do it. “This then, is what you shall do,” he wrote. “Stand up for the stupid and crazy, give alms to everyone who asks, love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, devote your income and labors to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families.”

I love my country and I’m not ashamed to say that.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990). She is currently working on her next book, The Long Arc of the Universe.